"Listen, Israel. Adonai is our God. Adonai is One."
– Deuteronomy 6:4
There is a tradition that says that we should cover our eyes when we recite the first six words of the Shema during the morning and evening service. There are many explanations for this practice, but the most common is that we should prevent ourselves from being distracted when we recite such an important prayer (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 61:5).
But what would distract us? If we are truly engaged in prayer, it seems to me, we should be be able to endure anything unusual that might enter our field of vision – an unexpected flash of sunlight, a person walking nearby, or an insect flying in front of us. Why should such trivialities bother us while we declare God's unity and the idea that ours is the God of the universe?
But there is a deeper possibility in the meaning of this practice. When we recite the Shema, we are declaring God's oneness. This is the idea that God is the unity of all unities. In God, everything is one. We hear these words and we recognize that there is nothing that God is not.
This is why we cover our eyes. If they were open, we would be distracted just by seeing the differentiation all around us. We would see the floor and believe it to be separate from the ceiling. We would see a chair and believe that it is separate from a table. We would see other people and believe that they are separate from ourselves. We would see ourselves and believe that we are separate from God. We close our eyes while reciting the Shema so that we can remember, just for a moment, that these are all distracting illusions. We know for an instant that everything we can perceive, everything we can experience, and everything we are is a part of God.
The next time you say the words, Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, close your eyes and allow yourself to be a part of the profound unity of all existence that is contained within God. Close your eyes and allow yourself to see.
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